Tag Archives: identity

Surviving and Loving Me

10 Sep

I have been so mad at myself recently. It’s not that there has been a single incident that made me feel this way, but I’ve been very… well, unhappy.

Recently, I met up with my friend Dika, whom I have not seen since her wedding in Jakarta. She is now back to Singapore and started a new job. We were catching up on chitchats that we have not shared for a while, and I was telling her about the rough patches that I’ve been going through recently. She is one of those really grounded and gracious people, so maybe I was just seeking some sort of advice from her. She also talked about some of the challenges that she went through over the past couple of months, and I guess we both found comfort in the fact that both of us have been (in my case, I still am) on the same boat.  One thing that she said really struck me and made me think about it for days. “you know it was really difficult when I constantly compared myself to others, so I stopped doing that, and I think I’m happier now.”

Happiness. Happy. Happier. Aha, maybe that’s why I’ve been so mad. It’s a concept that I’ve avoided thinking about for a while. Really, while I have been feeling like Sisyphus (the king in Greek mythology who tried to full with Hades, the god of underworld, hence punished to constantly push up a boulder only to realize that it’s gonna be pushed down), it’s something that I haven’t given much thought about, because “everyone else in the world” has seemed to be happier than me.

In the age of hyper-voyeurism, it’s become impossible for me not to know what is going on with the people that I care and most importantly (and very unfortunately), people I don’t care about. The girl who used to sit next to you in the econ lecture in college is all the sudden this big shot investment banker in New York (or wherever). The guy whom I used to work with is now a big shot consultant in so-and-so company. This girl I sorta know is now a CEO of a startup company. Ex-boyfriend is in med school and married (true story). And the story never ends. Everybody seems to be moving on and most importantly, happy, except me. Everyday is just a constantly competition (for what?), because I’m not meeting the expectations that I’ve built up based on what I see in others.

Yeap, I’m so mad at myself.

And I panic. What have I done while they’ve achieved all that? Really, what have I done wrong? Why the heck am I the only one in the world who’s freaking lost and unhappy? Where am I driving myself to?

Then I catch my breath. How do I know that they are happy? Why do I even care? Where is I in the midst of all this nonsense? As Dika mentioned in our conversation, I’m never gonna be happy (and always exhausted) if I don’t stop. So I tell myself.

I have the right to get lost and take the roundabout route. I have the right to enjoy and hate various moments of my life in order to find out my true passion. I have the right to survive the most difficult version of me during challenging times. I have the right to love myself with all my heart. And most importantly, I have the right to be happy with even the most imperfect, clueless and lost version of me.

So I decided to build myself a survival guide. Perhaps I can place happiness at the center of it then I can probably filter out all the noises, one day at a time. After all, “Happiness is equilibrium” and I just need to “shift [my] weight” as Tom Stoppard said (thanks Sarah for your favorite quote). And maybe, it will get easier for me to say, “Hey, I’m so in love with myself and happy with every moment of my life.” And until then, I keep adding a line a day to the survival guide.

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On Invisibility

17 Jul

“For God’s sake, can you just TAKE compliments?”

On one fine evening out on Arab Street with my friend Yvette (the official “last” dinner in Singapore for her, before she went back to Rwanda), she told me she liked my outfit, and I probably said something like, “Oh, I just got it for really cheap.”

“You know what my aunt says when people tell her she looks good? She says, ‘Oh, you should have seen me yesterday!’ with her attitude.”

I didn’t particularly know what to say. So I just told her it was an Asian thing. We Asians are not supposed to show up, we are programmed to be “modest” in our actions and words. Then the whole conversation really made me think of the aspect of Asian womanhood, at least to my life so far.

I “became” Asian when I went to the US as a 15-year-old girl. That was the first label that was given to me. An Asian chick. The label came with many other tags, such as being quiet, a hard worker, genius in math and really, having not much of character at all. In one word, I was automatically considered an “invisible one,” just like all the other FOBs at my school.

The thing is that I didn’t choose to be invisible. My English was not great and I didn’t know how to socialize in the language and the particular social structure, so I couldn’t talk much and I didn’t have any other choice but working hard. I was good in math because that was about the only subject that didn’t require much English.

I was invisible by default.

It was a very painful period of my life, but I did well. I excelled in my high school career, graduated at the top of my class, and went to a decent university. But what many people don’t know is that I stayed up many nights in the bathroom after the light-out time in my boarding school dorm, I practiced English pronunciation that I couldn’t quite get during the day (and often was made fun of) hundreds of times so that I could speak it right the next time, and I woke up 6am every morning so that I could do more studying than others. Eventually I started to become more active. I was able to speak up.

I did all these so that I could become visible. But even then, I was still a hardworking Asian girl who is good at math (and maybe in other subjects, too, but only good in academic sense). I was still invisible.

Now, I feel very comfortable with English (which is my working and social language everyday these days), and people know that I have a sarcastic, biting sense of humor along with my “attitudes,” and maybe I can thank my American education for that. I tried really hard not to be “that Asian chick” who rarely speaks out her mind, who studies a conventional discipline (econ, biology, engineering, etc) really hard and dresses too well. I chose to speak out (often very nervously I admit), chose an unconventional major (although I did study hard), and ran around in my sweatpants with no makeup on purpose. I tried hard to prove myself different. I tried to be visible.

But the funny thing is that I still find myself “choosing” to be invisible often unconsciously. Maybe it got started after I came back to Asia a few years ago while I was struck with a sense of reverse culture shock. But then thinking about it, I’m not sure about that at all. Looking back, in the States, I deliberately “oppressed” the Asian side of me, because it was too painful to be one. In a way, I chose not to see a part of me that I associated with invisibility. And now, I come back to my “home” culture, I feel a sense of displacement, and I’m not sure how to position myself. Gradually, I became invisible again. I am afraid of how people may judge me, because I act “too American” and “too White.” My dad used to yell at me for being “too loud” and “too all over” when I was younger, and the same voice is ringing in my head again. The culture that brought me up for the first 15 years of my life is creeping back in and the confusion that I probably should have had as a teenager is hitting me hard.

From all the voices of the past and present, I hear clashing things: Be modest.  Don’t be afraid to express yourself. Be quiet. Talk out loud. You are not supposed to think that you are beautiful (and you are kinda ugly). You are beautiful in every way. And I become buried in all these voices, then again, I become invisible. I choose not to express, because I don’t wanna be judged in one way or another, and this time, such invisibility brings me a temporary comfort, but maybe a deeper cut.

I don’t think it’s simply about a confused individual’s confidence issue, although to a certain extent, it is. It is about certain social constructs and how they may affect an individual (or many individuals) of certain origin, let’s say an ethnic minority (in American context) woman whose cultural diversity should not only be celebrated but also be reconciliated. And even as an ethnic “majority” in Asia, the same individual still feels the cultural pressure and ambiguity, now faced with the “home” culture, because she would hear the society dictating how a good Korean woman should be while maintaining the invisibility at the same time.

When will I become visible by default? When will I be able to take those compliments without feeling the necessity of being modest? Will I be able to love myself truly without being able to truly see herself?

Day 30: Finally the Last Day!!!

18 Mar

So this is FINALLY the last day of my 30-Day Project (although I’m posting this a couple of hours after Saturday)! Spending my entire evening packing my luggage –yet again— to head to Singapore (yes, I have a job now), I asked myself why I began and held on to this project over the past one month or so.

Yes, of course, I wanted to do something productive with my time, and I wanted to commit to something for at least for a month (although I don’t think I’m over my “commitment-phobia” issue, just yet). But as I went along, I realized that it was more than that. I was re-learning about what I had been passionate about and who I really was. During the past 2 years or so, I had been studying public policy and utterly confused about how the discipline could actually be connected to my passion, to the things that really mattered to my life, from my home country to academic origin as an anthropologist to social justice and human rights issues. But by writing about something everyday, whether I had something that I was dying to write and talk about, or I was going through internet endlessly seeking some inspiration, I always found something that I could write about. Some postings were over 1,000 words and others were only 200 words or so. But everyday, I thought about what I would write (throughout the day), then sat down in front of my laptop in the evening, then I produced, sometimes to fulfill my “public duty” or other times, to bring my thoughts together.

And I learned how to be myself in front of others. Yes, I promised that I would write on women and gender issues, and I think I was pretty good with following the theme. However, when the whole thing comes down to the essence, I was selfishly and shamelessly writing about myself. I rarely talk about my personal stuff with others, and many of my friends find it difficult to get to know me, because I rarely share anything personal. It hasn’t always been intentional, but it has been more of my personal habit of protecting myself, perhaps overly. But here, whatever the topic of that day was, I always related it to my personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. During the process, I remembered lots of my life stories. My life hasn’t been that long, and my memory can be very selective (just like yours), but I had to collect them together in order for me to survive. I was working on a “storytelling project” for a very, very selfish reason of telling my stories to others via this internet means, and ultimately, re-narrating them to myself, so that I can locate where I am in my life.

Chimamanda Adichie said that she once thought that a good writer/storyteller is someone who had gone through tremendous tragedies in her life, and when she realized that she didn’t have anything standing out in her own life, she mourned for the lack of tragedies (However, she later realized that the power to tell different stories can be much more powerful, while there is always the danger of telling a single story). I was worried at times, too, and even afraid. I don’t particularly feel that I’ve had many challenges in my life that I could tell others with interesting flavors. And because I was like this, I always had the thoughts behind my back, asking “who am I to make comments about the others’ stories as if they are my own?” This was perhaps related to my old habit of self-consciousness that I mentioned earlier. But I chose not to be afraid of judgments, because I know that I (and my thoughts) cannot be loved by everyone, and I want to accept that it is OK not to be part of the harmony that other people demand.

BUT I would like to think that some of my stories were different (from what? I’m not sure), yet genuine. I hope that some people were able to relate to my thoughts and experiences, and find themselves in my stories. This habit of writing is likely to continue (although probably not on daily basis), and I hope that I will have many more stories and dreams to share with others.

And I give a gentle, self-congratulatory pat on my back.

Day 29: Maya Says…

16 Mar

I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.
-Maya Angelou

I hope that every woman has young spirit and does what Maya told us. We must defeat what the world says on how we should be and tell the world to just shut up. We are gonna tell the world how it should be. And I hope that many of us really do kick some ass seriously.

Day 25: Growing Up to Be a Woman, Not a Girl

10 Mar

While I have been online aimlessly, looking for some sort of inspiration for my posting today, I ran into this “call for submission” on the Huffington Post. It was a call for video on “The moment I knew I was a woman, not a girl.” Really, when did I become a woman from a girl? Interesting question to ask myself. I mean, there is no clear boundary in between, but I know for sure that I’m not a girl anymore (well, I still have my kid moment time to time). So I started to look back in my life.

I would say that it was the time when I learned that I had almost no money left in my bank account during graduate school. I declared to my parents that I would not get any more money from them unless I was desperate and borrow some (to be paid back later), and other than the money I received for the initial settlement in Singapore, I refused any monetary help from them. It was horrible to think that I had to count every single penny in my wallet while the grad school stipend was not enough. Often, I was looking for the cheapest product at the grocery store, and there was absolutely no possibility for shopping just for fun. I have had a part time job or two since I was 16, but this time, I really needed every single dollar that I earned for mere survival. In times of emergencies, I did borrow some money from my parents, though, and until now, I owe them about 3,000 dollars for the period that I had been in graduate school, which I’m planning to pay back after I start working (very soon!).

Now I ask you. When was the time that you became a woman, not a girl? When was the time that you became an individual who is fully responsible for your actions and thoughts without depending on or blaming others? It is still terrifying at times to think that I am the only person with all the duties, but I guess we all would have to face the exciting and challenging times.

Day 19: The Plastic Surgery Debate Shall Continue Forever

2 Mar

By accident, I ran into this article today written by Siobhan Courtney. This discusses the PIP breast implant scandal and the whole issue of plastic surgery and women’s choice. I don’t know if you remember, but this was the horrendous case where silicone that was not up to standard for medical use was used for breast implants everywhere in the world. She mainly argues that women who choose to obtain the surgery are exercising their agencies over their bodies, and they are not some cheap bimbos.

Her argument is something that seems to be opposite to the argument that I presented yesterday. But the general sentiment against the patriarchal voices regarding plastic surgery seems to be the same. Her argument is more on the fact that many patriarchal discourses ignore the fact that women have agency to make their own choices regarding their bodies (and satisfy their needs to feel good about themselves, not necessarily pleasing men), while calling the women bimbos and many terrible names. Although I agree that women should be able to freely exercise their agencies, I would argue against her argument, because I think that the driving force of overall plastic surgery industry and culture is the patriarchal culture. What seems to matter the most in this whole plastic surgery debate ultimately is that patriarchal discourse will always be present whether to cause plastic surgeries or to criticize them. Also it should be debated what has contributed to the formation of “women’s agency” which is highly subjective anyways. Well, I guess I saw the extreme negatives while she observed the “grey areas,” like the example of the woman in her writing who had to get plastic surgery after breastfeeding 2 children.

Just too much to think about… and the debate will go on, I suppose.

Day 9: Defining a Woman by Her Cover

20 Feb

A few days ago, I ran into this posting on facebook on my friend Mirza’s wall.

Photo credit: Mc Diamondog on Facebook

Whatever the message you got from above, it somehow reminded me of my friendship with some of my friends who are Muslims and have worn headscarfs for several years of their lives.

Before I lived in Singapore, I had never had a close friend who was Muslim. I’ve only lived in small towns without much diversity, and even during college, the closest interaction I had with Muslim population was the Imam at the school (who was called “Muslim Chaplin”) that I attended a lecture of. I mean, I was interested in Islam and the culture, but I never had much exposure, part of it because I did not have any friend around me who was able to share her stories.

Then when I started grad school, I encountered people from way more diverse Asian cultures (and I thought America I experienced was diverse), and I had the honor of developing friendship across nationalities, cultures and religions that I had never interacted with before. Now, some of my closest friends are Muslims, and I am so grateful for the relationships.

Although what I saw from my friends in headscarves at first was not “oppression, submission or terrorism,” I know that there was a type of orientalism-like curiosity from my end (a la Edward Said). After all, my perspective looking into the wide range of Asian cultures was probably not too different from that of an educated yet ignorant Western person, hopefully without nasty prejudices against certain religions and cultures. I was more careful in getting to know my friends who were in headscarves, because I saw them with women who were determined to express their religious identity, and Islam was all I saw from the first impression.

But then, what happened during the process of “getting to know each other?”

It was simple. We became friends. We talked about celebrities, had dinners and snacks together (avoiding pork, of course), shopped going through sale racks, watched Friends and movies together, talked about boys and cried over some of them, and worried about our futures because we did not know what the heck we were doing by being in grad school. In sum, we did what friends did. We did what all 20-something year old girl friends did together.

On the way, I automatically got to learn so much about Islam and what it means to them, of course. I fasted a few times for Ramadan (not the whole month though, yet), broke fast at 7:14pm Singapore time, and celebrated the end of the holy month together with really nice food. I have woken up to the sound of the first prayer in a morning in Yogyakarta when it was 3-something-am. I had several long conversations with a friend before she decided to take off her headscarf, and I was happy to support her decision. I have been to the mosque during prayer with my friend while we were out and about, and watching so many people devoted to God breaking away from their regular day was something so moving. My friends all became a part of enriching experiences, and learning about a religion that I had almost no exposure previously was a wonderful experience, because I was getting to know an important part of their lives.

What I’m trying to say here is this. The whole political discourses over what women of certain cultures and religions (in this case, Muslim women) should wear and not wear, depending on which countries they live in, seem completely absurd to me. After all, who made the grand fear discourse that a society is in danger, because of certain cultural forces? And who has reproduced such language in order to keep the society in panic by scapegoating women’s attire?

As a non-religious person who has been in and out of different religious temples for experience’s sake, I wear whatever I feel right in. I sometimes wear jeans and t-shirts, and other times wear a dress. I refuse to be ordered around in terms of what I wear, because I’m a woman who decides what is good and comfortable for me to wear. I exercise autonomy over my body and over my decision, because I refuse to be treated like a child. And I’m sure that my girl friends that I talked about earlier, the ones that I have done all the “regular girl things” together, enjoy their autonomy as full adults who are capable of picking up the shirts, headscarves, or whatever the garments they want to wear every morning.

After all, we all can define ourselves in various ways, regardless of the types of clothes we wear.